Tuesday, May 30, 2006

I Love Romania

Somewhere Near The Romanian-Hungarian Border

We were joined by three of Mike's crew (Janelle, Alia, and Iain) for our five-day stint in Romania. We rented a car and drove around Romania's pothole-laden roadways, exploring some of the more remote corners of the country. Our final destination was a small beach town on the Black Sea called Vama Veche, a few kilometers away from the Bulgarian border. And that was where I had a very memorable night.

We arrived in Vama Veche on the 27th, and quickly settled in, cleaned up, and wolfed down a hearty dinner. That evening, we went down to the local beach bar to get our schwerve on. We spent a few hours drinking beer, dancing in the sand with the locals, and taking ridiculous photos. Come midnight, though, energy was dwindling. We had woken up early, and spent nearly half the day driving, so we weren't really in top form. Eventually everyone else had gone to bed, and I was alone in a sea of Romanians, doin' my little kooky dance. My plan was just to finish my Ursus beer, jiggy once or twice more, and call it night.
About halfway through the beverage, I noticed a trio of Romanian girls dancing in a giggly circle not too far away from me. And it seemed like they kept throwing sly glances my way, but I was tired, and I had been confused many times in the past year by local custom, so I wasn't thinking about pursuing anything. Plus, it seemed like they were receiving a constant stream of suitors which they would quickly rebuff with a toss of their hair and a wave of their hand. I wasn't in the mood to be rebuffed in such a dismissive manner, so I ignored my instincts, and concentrated on my beer.
When I was just about done with the Ursus, I looked up and realized that the trio had me surrounded. They had deftly grooved their way around me and were slowly tightening the noose. I tried to wiggle my way out of their grasp, but to no avail. They kept me firmly ensconced in their hip-grinding circle. I resigned myself to doing the twist in the center, and that is how I met Andrea, Ana, and Dora.
They were all college students from Bucharest, on their last days of vacation before their big finals. Tomorrow, they would be leaving "The Veche" to take two buses and a train back to Bucharest. But, tonight, they were partying. They had three coke bottles half full of whiskey between them, and enough energy to wake my old ass up. And they all spoke excellent english. So, the night began again, and the four of us conversed, danced, sang, and drank.
This went on for hours. There were a few pauses in the action, like when I accidently poured half of my beer on Ana, or when she accidently punched me in the crotch. There were also still the occasional boy-based interruptions. Apparently, the dudes in Romania are very forward, as they would just walk up to the girls and start dancing and grabbing. Behavior that in the US would get you slapped or worse just led to a yelp and a mean stare in Romania. But, they would only stick around for a minute or so. Once they got the message that the girls weren't interested, they would just grumble and walk off. Occasionally, they would talk to me, too, to ask me how I know these ladies and why I wouldn't "share" them with anyone. There were two guys in particular that I met this way:

Jorge (I'm not sure about the spelling; it's the Romanian equivalent of George, pronounced yor-ghi) was a slightly portly, very drunk dude with an interesting stumble who was constantly calling me "motherfucker". At first, I was a bit worried that he was just itching to get into a fight with me until I realized that he didn't mean it as an insult. The popularity of American culture outside the US is such that people will use all kinds of American words and phrases without really knowing what they mean. To Jorge, motherfucker was just a cool, hip-hoppy way of referring to someone. So, while at first, he was annoying and worrisome, he eventually became a cool guy. He was actually fun to talk to once he stopped pawing up the girls.
Antonio wasn't so harmless. I never really felt comfortable around him, but he was a very engaging person. Like a lot of undereducated people in the poorer parts of the world, he was remarkably well-spoken. In the US, you would expect someone with little education to be able to speak only english, and that just barely. But Antonio, since he had traveled around Europe looking for work, could speak four or five. His english wasn't that great, though, so we ended up speaking to each other in spanish. He was also heavily into american hip-hop. He had a big 50 Cent T-shirt on, Thug Life tattooed on his belly, and he wore a do-rag LA-gangsta-stylee on his head.
While the ladies were off refilling their coke bottles, Antonio and I had a long conversation about them. Antonio was trying to tell me that they were putas, and they were just trying to get my money. He could hook me up with a nice girl for half the price, at a party that was really close by. I thanked him for his generous offer, but politely declined, assuring him that I wouldn't give the girls any money.

Anyway, besides some of that unpleasantness, the night was great. Around 5am, dawn started to break, so we set up shop on a small wooden bench in the sand. It was pretty cold at that time of night, especially after we had stopped all the dancing, so I had to run in to get some clothes (Ana borrowed my hat, and Dora used my sweater). We then spent the next hour snuggled in a line, each person hugging the one in front, and watched the sun slowly rise over the Black Sea.
I think this was my favorite part of the night (or morning, as it were). Traveling for a year, you miss a lot of the benefits of familiar friends and family. Intimate contact is one of those things, and just sitting their in a huddled line, yapping about bullshit, enjoying each other's warmth and watching the sun rise was exactly what I needed. Mike is a good friend and all, but he's not really someone I want to snuggle with. Or even say snuggle in front of... that's just embarrassing.
After the sun finished it's labored rise over the water, we retired to the beach bar and had a seat with Antonio and his friend Rumi. Rumi bought us all wine spritzers, and we sat there in the warming morning, talking about music and America. It turned out he owned a bar on the beach, and a club in Bucharest, so we had a lot to talk about. He was an excellent english speaker, too.
Eventually, the ladies had to retire to pack up their shit and check out, since they were leaving that day. I had to do the same, so we parted ways, agreeing to meet at the beach later in the day. We did, but only for a coupla minutes. Just long enough for Dora to return my sweater, and for everyone to say goodbye. We exchanged emails and kisses, and I promised them I would send the pictures I took. And then, they were gone.

And the night was over.

There Is A Virus In The Village


During our brief visit to Romania, The Operation's numbers swelled a bit. We were joined by OC veteran Janelle S. as well as new recruits Alia (Canadian) and Iain (Scottish) from London. They met us in Bucharest where we picked up a rental car and travelled with us in a grand circle. Before and after our rendez-vous with the London posse, Jason and I had some time to wander the streets of Bucharest. It is a distinctly Eastern European kind of place that reminded me a bit of Moscow. The city center was a north-south axis dominated by a few undramatic squares and unimposing public buildings. What charm we found lay in the back streets of the historic quarter. Its wide cobbled lanes were flanked by buildings remarkable both for their grandeur and poor state of preservation. There was a palpable decay to all but the most aggressively restored structures. This area was home to many hip shops and cafes that injected a bit of youth into an area that might otherwise have come off as depressingly old world.

The first stop on our motor tour was the Transylvanian town of Brasov, several hours north of Bucharest. Along the way, we stopped at a smaller town to view a castle. We were slightly too late to take the tour, but we were able to snap some shots of the impressive exterior and grounds. Brasov was famous for its quaint old town and it lived up to expectation. We capped off a day of touristing the old streets and cathedral with a cable car ride up to a nearby hilltop. From altitude, it was easiest to see that this was a place of two minds. The old town was hemmed in neatly by row after row of tower blocks and commercial parks. Development had not destroyed the soul of Brasov, but it definitely had it surrounded.

On the way north, we learned an important lesson: everywhere in Romania took longer to reach than we thought. This could mostly be attributed to the poor state of the roads. It took us two days of hard driving over mountains and potholes to get to the coast - a journey initially projected to take a mere couple of hours. The countryside was often stunning, but some of the allure was lost on a team thirsting for sun and sand. Along the way, there was one notably spooky incident at a police checkpoint. The officer in charge informed us in eerily accented English that we were to under no circumstances stop in the next village as it was victim of "a virus". If Hollywood has taught me anything, it is to avoid virus-stricken Transylvanian villages, but we boldly pressed on. The seemingly inevitable zombie attack inexplicably never materialized.

We arrived at the Black Sea coast in the early evening ready to party, and our chosen destination did not disappoint. Vama Veche was a very small town built entirely to service those attract by its decent (but far from excellent) beach. For a night and a day, we slept, dined, drank, and danced directly upon or very close to the sand. The service was typically slow and the music in the buzzing beachfront pub was cheesy, but the beer was cheap and the crowd friendly. The water in the hotel shower was super cold, but our beds were within easily stumbling distance. It was not a luxury stay at the coast, but it had all the most important ingredients of a good time. Two details of note: 1) there was a fair bit of geriatric nudity on Romanian beaches; and 2) there were almost no children around. I am not sure if these two were related.

After a day and a night on the beach, we had to head back to Bucharest. Predictably, the journey took about twice as long as we thought. We missed the beginning of the sole stretch of motorway in the entire country and ended up veering far to the north before getting our course corrected. The unexpectedly lengthy drive provided opportunity to reflect on recent travels. I think there was general agreement that Romania is a middle-of-the-road sort of nation. It seems a bit richer than some neighbors, but it has definitely not turned the corner from Developing Avenue onto First World Boulevard. Even the big cities are dark, dirty, and a bit dilapidated. Smaller towns are full of agrarian locals spending equal times blocking traffic with their horse carts and idling around staring at the passing cars.

Our last night we slept in a hotel occupying part of a wonderfully old and character-ridden building in the heart of old Bucharest. After saying goodbye to Iain and the girls, Jason and I had a few hours to kill before catching the overnight train to Zagreb, so we decided to have a look at the capital's premiere tourist attraction: The Palace of the People - the world's second largest office building (after the Pentagon) and an enduring monument to the mad ambitions of Romania's much-detested communist-era dictator. To our surprise, there was a free concert being held out front sponsored by the Tuborg brewing company. This afforded us the dubious pleasure of again sampling Brazil's most popular beer, Skol, while watching some pretty horrible pop trash. The real show was in the crowd, though. Romanian kids seem pretty much like teenagers the world over: oddly dressed, self-conscious, and full of life. It was nice to end our visit with amused chuckles rather than detached nods.

Monday, May 29, 2006

Boba Feta

The Food of Greece

There is more to Greek cuisine than just gyros and feta. That said, I could have easily stopped at just the two and been content. Everything else was gravy. The sons of Zeus really know how to nosh down.

Word on the street is that actual Greeks break their fast with the nutritious combo of coffee and cigarettes. Americans touristing in Greece started their day (if they manage to get out of bed before lunch) with bread and jam, spinach and cheese pastries, or yogurt and honey. All of these were too my taste, but I had a strong preference for the pastries. They went down an oily treat in combo with a cup of tea or a beer. Greek lunch came sometime after one. Its tardy arrival pushed back dinner to the fashionable hour of nine. There was no clear distinction between the content of the midday and evening meals, although the former seemed to feature more beer and the latter more wine. It was normal to enjoy one of a variety of crunchy salads to start. They were so generously supplied that I was almost never done with the first course before the second was upon us. Common main plates were roasted meat with starchy sides, gussied-up pastas, or seafood stews. Dessert was uncommon is restaurants, but not unheard of.

A few things of particular note:
  • Cheese - We must have had a bit of cheese at every meal. If not topping off a salad, it arrived fried (saganaki) or lurking about the mains.
  • Greek Salad - Jason has an oft stated devotion to this particular combo of cucumber, tomato, olives, and feta ubiquitously available throughout Hellas. Leaves ("filler", as he says) really just get in the way or a good salad.
  • Gyro - This snack delicacy is close to replacing the burrito as my ideal post-pub food. Although superficially similar to a Turkish kebap, it has a style and flavor all its own. A gyro is chicken or lamb cut from a rotating stack, dosed in some kind of yogurt sauce, and served in a butter-fried piece of flatbread along with some salad. After you have had one, it is difficult not to go back for another.
  • Seafood - Greek cuisine makes the most of the Aegean. Every slimy creature from the blue deep that found its way on to my plate was happily passed along into my stomach. The shellfish were of particularly high quality and the sardines, although clumsy to eat, were always well received.
  • Bread - It is always there and often hits the table before the menu. Baguette-like loafs were far more common than pita.
  • Wine - House wines were generally very nice. They were ordered by the litre rather than by the bottle and served in a pitcher poured from a barrel.
  • Ouzo - There were mixed opinions regarding the national booze of Greece. I liked it. Jason and Lauren were nonplussed at best. Ouzo is an anise-flavored liquor drank iced and mixed with water. The addition of a bit of agua turns it from clear to milky white. It is enjoyed as an aperitif or in concert with an array of small dishes.
  • Coffee - I am not sure if there is a bean shortage or what, but coffee was very expensive. That did not stop folks from crowding into the cafes, though. Most folks seemed to prefer frape - coffee blended with milk and served over ice - to espresso or filter.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Bulgar Woot


Sofia is not a terribly nice town. Fortunately, the warmth of our reception overwhelmed any shortcomings. For some time prior to arrival, Jason had been in contact via email with the sister of a co-worker from back in Pasadena. Margarite and her son Roman met us at the train station and made sure we were well looked after almost up to the moment of departure. She arranged for us to stay on the university campus in a small hotel that was an ideal combination of comfortable, affordable, and convenient. We spent the better part of three days together chatting, shopping, eating, and walking in the nearby hills. It was a good opportunity for me to speak a bit of French, as Margarite prefers it to English. She was very tolerant of my haphazard grammar, vocabulary, and accent.

The Bulgarian capital suffered from what seems to be a common problem among formerly communist countries: lack of maintenance. The town was laid our well with wide avenues, an extensive tram network, ornate buildings, and many parks, but all of them were in a state of bad repair. Concrete is universally cracked, grass goes uncut, and it is not uncommon to find piles of rubble here and there. An afternoon spent walking around the city center was not entirely wasted - the Alexander Nevsky cathedral and the more upscale shopping district are worth a look - but the attractions are small in number and compacted into a small area. The city's nightlife was surprisingly active. We spent one evening downing beers in a very nice modern bar and another enjoying an extended hip hop / drum and bass concert in the city ice rink featuring some excellent international talent.

The daytime highlights of our visit to Sofia were all outside of town. Chief among these was the Bulgarian National History Museum. A former government palace, the building itself was an impressive monument to bad taste. Fortunately, the collections were more than enough to distract you from the elaborate chandeliers, sunken marble floors, and shiny wood paneling. Most memorable was the display of funerary objects that were the oldest gold artifacts ever found. The museum sat in the hills and mountains that closely border Sofia. We spent a relaxing few hours walking paths among trees and melting snow at a nearby ski slope. We also took a few minutes to visit a monument to the creativity of children - a semi-circle of bells donated from around the world. It was not tremendously inspiring, but I did enjoy making a great deal of noise.

A friend of Roman's called Daniella and her friend Andre graciously offered to take us out to the Rali monastery - an important site in the history of Romania and the Romanian Orthodox Church. It was about a two hour drive out to the site through green countryside only occasionally interrupted by gigantic, semi-derelict factories. On the way, we hiked up some hills behind a village to view "the pyramids" - pointy rock formations that look something like small karsts. On arrival at the monastery, we had a very good Bulgarian lunch before visiting the impressively large stone building. It was built like a fortress or castle with a high outer wall enclosing a large courtyard and a small church. The chapel was notable for its extensive collection of saintly relics and the graves of the much-revered founder of the monastery and the last king of Bulgaria.

After Sophia, we travelled by train to Plovdiv, Bulgaria's second city, and on to Veliko Tarnovo, a former capital. We ignore advice to travel by bus and paid the price for it. Bulgarian trains are uncomfortable, crowded, and confusing. The discomfort of getting there did not ruin the destinations, though. Plovdiv is an energetic place with attractive streets and a very beautiful old city. There were lots of nightlife options and we had a fun but undistinguished evening on the town. Veliko Tarnovo is a much smaller town built along the steep banks of a river's s-shaped curve. The skyline is dominated by a very striking monument to the liberating Bulgarian tsars, a few churches, and a large ruined castle. It must be the most picturesque place in Bulgaria. Our night on the town was notable because was prom season and there were lots of kids in gowns and suits in the cities active but lame (YMCA!) discos.

After Greece, Bulgaria was refreshingly inexpensive. Most things costed a third to a fourth as much as you might expect in Western Europe. This was clearly symptomatic of general economic troubles. Most young people we met were dreaming of moving elsewhere. We ran across one guy in particular that had spent several years illegally in South Carolina (Greenville, yeck) and was itching to get back abroad as soon as he finished his degree. Other people complained that widespread corruption and mafia influence were so strong that they would block the much-discussed entry into the European Union. Most predicted that it would be some time yet before Bulgaria fully recovered from the communist era. I see some reason for optimism, but I can only agree that there is a lot of room for progress and it will probably come slowly.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Video Gallery: Killa Kela

When we were in Sofia, we were unexpectedly surprised by a top-notch drum'n'bass show (World of Drum and Bass) going on our last night in town. Although I've seen him kick the show off a few times before, Killa Kela never ceases to entertain.

Video Gallery: Karaoke Mike

Our last night in Greece inspired us to serenade the city of Thessaloniki. Mike belted out a lovely duet with our bartendress.

Turkey Sandwiches


Anatolian meals were comfortably similar to those of my youth in format in timing, but different enough in content so as to present an adventure. Sit-down breakfasts were uniformly a pile of bread (flat, or otherwise) with jam, butter, sliced tomato and cucumber, tea, and maybe some honey. A morning meal on the go was usually a piece of savory pastry filled with spinach or cheese. Lunch hit the table around noon and was comprised most frequently of grilled meat served with bread and a selection of salads. The evening meal arrived between six and eight and was similar to lunch, but with more incidences of starchy staples like fried potatoes or rice and more booze. I preferred beer or raki (an anise flavoured liquor) to the domestic wines. We made at least one stop into a Turkish patisserie to sample local sweets and were well rewarded for the effort. The large number of exotic desserts on offer made choosing a bit difficult.

Some items of particular note:
  • Mezze - As a snack or an alternative to a conventional meal it was widely possible to order a plate of meat, cheese, and salads eaten with bread and served on a communal platter. There was some variation here, but we almost always got olives, a yogurt and cucumber combo, and spicy aubergines (eggplants). More exotic offerings involved offal (marinated liver in one instance) and sometimes sausage.
  • Kepabs - Certainly the most widely known Turkish culinary export is the rotating cylinder of lamb or chicken. Chunks of cooked bit were cut off the outside to order and served either on a plate with salad or wrapped in a piece of flatbread for a snack on the move. I found the quality of the entire product (especially the meat) to be much higher in the domestic market than I have come to expect from any post-pub outings in the UK.
  • Pide - It was like pizza, but with less cheese and tomato sauce and a crispier crust. Plate-sized portions were made to order with toppings like egg, sausage, and smoked meat and sliced up on your behalf. My only argument with this dish is that it sometimes left an unpleasant oily aftertaste and could be a bit dry.
  • Turkish Delight - Lokum in Turkish, this jellied desert had the consistency of jujubees (sp?) and came in a variety of flavors. I liked the kind that was covered in coconut and tasted a bit of hazelnut. I did not like the kind that is super minty with a filling unpleasantly like toothpaste. There is a reason nobody chows down on Colgate, even the tartar control kind.
  • Bachelor's Delight - In our efforts to find a place to watch an Istanbul derby football match, we ran across a very nice cafe overlooking the Sea of Marmara. For dinner, they prepared me a big pile of egg topped off with melted cheese and chunks of sausage. It reminded me of the kind of things I used to cook just out of college during that hazy year in the LA hills. Yum.
  • All Meatball, All The Time - Some restaurants specialized in what is translated as "meatballs" (kofte), but is probably more usefully described as "spiced mince grilled around skewers". The shape is far to oblong to be accurately likened to a ball. The one we went in was a rough and ready affair where our order hit the table almost immediately after being placed and you chewed your last mouthful on the way out the door. The food might be fast, but this weren't no Taco Bell. The meat was done to perfection and had a nice onion flavor to boot.
  • Tea - Once again, tea deserves special note. It was available anywhere at anytime and was much more popular than beers as the mainstay beverage of male gatherings. For reasons that are not clear, it was always served in glass thimbles, so you get to scorch your fingers while enjoying three drops of hot liquid. I could make a fortune by importing the technology of ceramic mugs into this otherwise thoroughly modern land.
  • Coffee - Turkish coffee was something of an affront to whatever god has in his portfolio the caffeinated beans. It was made so thick and strong so as to literally remind of mud. The last ten percent of an espresso cup contained an undrinkably horrid sludge more akin to Bovril (the extra beefy kind) than a decent cup of joe.

One Year, No Job

Plovdiv, Bulgaria

Today marks the one year anniversary of the OC's last day of gainful employment. It seems like a very long time indeed since I was drunkenly heaping weepy praise upon colleagues at Yahoo's generously thrown goodbye do in Pasadena. Not long after were two more farewell parties - a karaoke jam in our garage and a more cultured affair in Manhattan - both of which are similarly distant in my memory. The last year started well and has just kept coming. Tonight we will mark the occasion the OC way: by drinking cheap Bulgarian beer and trying to meet girls.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Photo Albums: Meteora

After the oceanic beauty of Santorini, we braved the mountains of Meteora.

Sunday, May 14, 2006


Thessaloniki, Greece

The Lonely Planet was spot on about Greek's second city. Thessaloniki was every bit as cool and upbeat as Athens was undistinctive. The old upper city makes good use of its remaining ancient walls and we spent a pleasant hour looking at the last towers and the remains of the citadel which had until recently been used as a small prison. There are a few archaeological sites dotted around the city, but nothing that qualifies as a destination in its own right. It was a pleasant surprise to run across a bit of preserved history on our way from here to there. We also took in the award-winning (2005 European Museum of the Year) Byzantine Museum. It features a pleasant if undramatic collection housed in an excellent modern building. The visit was only marred by the extremely attentive watchfulness of the staff over the two suspicious Americans that were apparently the only visitors at that time.

The city's geographic and social focal point is the waterfront. The endless parade of cafes, bars, and restaurants starts to fill up in mid-afternoon, reaches a buzzing climax of activity just before sunset, and continues to be busy well into the evening. On the back of local advice, we managed to find a few joints a notch above the rest to use as launchpads for evenings on the town. Outings included an extended sojourn among the beautiful people in a busy little bar, a set by DJ Spooky in a large concert hall, and karaoke with the younger crowd. Admission and drinks were expensive by OC standards, but folks seemed up for it and were at least pleasant if not actively friendly. In one memorable instance, we were temporarily adopted by the local gay scene in a bar called "Don't Tell Mama".

If I ever return to Thessaloniki, it will be in completely different clothes. The inhabitants (especially the women) take their fashion seriously. My four shirt / two pant backpacker wardrobe was not really up to snuff against the latest in trendy Eurowear. There is also some kind of battle going on to see who can sport the largest sunglasses. Since I do not even own a pair of sunglasses (and Jason favors the smaller varieties), we were not really in the ring for that contest either. As silly as the trend seems to me, though, fashionistas in windowpane shades were representative of the energetic vibe of T-Town that separates it from Athens. While we were in town, there was a video art festival and a big meeting of graffiti artists who painted the hell out of a long brick wall in the suburbs. It is all very cool and more reason why Thessaloniki should be the urban destination of choice in Greece for people with more of an interest in the new than the old.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Hellenic Anarchy

Athens, Greece

The grand and well-known history of Athens is just about the only thing that distinguished it from any other Mediterranean city. Besides an usually large amount of graffiti, the city was clean and orderly. People were friendly and well mannered. Much of the infrastructure was gleamingly new. I saw no direct evidence of the kind of urban crime we are used to the in the US. There was nothing notably bad about the place. The problem was that there was nothing notably different. Most buildings were too new to be distinctive and those that were old enough to be of interest were packed into an area distractingly overrun with tourism. Modern buildings were too low-rise and too spread out to form a skyline and there was really no definite city center. There was some relief to the landscape - two monument capped hills - and Athens is a coastal city, but the waterfront was either too far or too undeveloped to attract the attention of a casual visitor and the land features were unremarkable except as pedestals for ancient sites.

I reckon the old bits wee worth the effort, though. Top of the list was of course The Acropolis - a building so iconic that it seemed certain to disappoint. Once again my anticipation of over-hyping was wrong. I now at last believe that ancient monuments become world famous ancient monuments not because of clever marketing but because of merit. The Acropolis was much bigger than it looks on TV and was very impressive. The ongoing restoration can only make it more so. When we visited, some structures were in the process of being returned to their condition prior to the explosion of a Turkish ammunition store in the 15th century. The collection inside the onsite museum are not nearly as good as the views from along the outer walls of the once-fortified hill. Topping that in turn is the archaeological museum across town. The most interesting parts were those dealing with history well before the Golden Age - especially the exhibits from the Cyladian Islands. It is not every day that you find a refreshingly novel artistic style to admire.

During our time in town, we also took in a few parks, a couple of restaurants, many cafes, and at least one notable bar - the normal background experiences to any urban holiday - but in this case there was a notably unusual addition: sometimes violent political protest. In Europe, there is a traditional festival called May Day spread over the land by the ancient Vikings. To commemorate the exploits of everyone's favorite horned-chapeau clad raiders, university kids from London to Athens and Sicily to Oslo take a break from dialectic this and postmodern that to smash up a few Starbucks outlets. We were extra lucky in that May day fell during the same week that Athens was hosting the European Social Forum. The ESF was superficially a talking shop for bearded but meek vegan-types out to change the world. On the last day, it showed its true colors and became a small but enthusiastic running street battle with the police. We personally witnessed a few "Americans are Nazis"-themed gatherings but preferred to watch the more confrontational bits on TV from the safety of our hotel.

So, Athens did manage to distinguish itself in my memory, but not for anything intrinsic about the city itself - unless enthusiastic protest is a characteristic of local society. That would certainly explain all of the graffiti.

Photo Albums: Santorini

Greece has a bunch of islands that can fulfill any of man's desires. Santorini helped us get rid of all of that money that's been weighing us down.

Friday, May 05, 2006

Gilliganalous Island

Santorini, Greece

Santorini had everything that you would expect from a Greek island. The one city of any size was made up of super-white buildings with blue trim piled up on the edge of a cliff and separated only by narrow alleys and the occasional simple church or small road. The city center was overrun with moneyed tourists and the kinds of things that moneyed tourists like to find in city centers: cafes, restaurants, bars, souvenir shops, and trendy boutiques. There were no high rise hotels or apartment blocks to break up the view. From the terrace of some lucky establishments, you could see straight down the cliffs to the blue water and clear across the sloping land to the similarly azure sea butting up against the beaches on the other side.

There were a few surprises, though. The ferry docks were far below the city at the base of a formidable cliff. Newly arrived passengers could get up to the town by walking on a steep cobbled path, taking the twice hourly cable car, or hiring a donkey for the trip. It was the last option that was unexpected. In an uncharacteristic display of energy, we walked down to the port one day. Not long into it, we were assaulted first by the smell of accumulated mule poop and then by a chorus of voices repeating the queer mantra of "want donkey?". A more unnerving surprise was that a previous settlement on the island had been completely obliterated by the eruption of a volcano, the still active cap of which was visible in the harbor. Also of geologic note, sun worshippers on the island have their choice of red, black, or white sand upon which to drop towel.

We did not take advantage of any of the sandy hues on offer. Early May is a tad bit too far from summer for serious beaching of this whale. Instead, we spent most of our time brooding over coffees, tucking into plates of seafood, and getting our dance on. The cafes were accommodating places where we were free to sit and chat or read for hours for the cost of but one round of drinks. The restaurants were of a very high standard. I had a pasta and shellfish dish that was of particular note. Despite it being the first days of the holiday season, the bars were busy with Greek and foreign folks alike. I spent a solid wad of euros on booze.

As a bit of a footnote...

As the frequent reader may recall, I get bad hangovers. In an effort to combat my post-revelry sickness, I picked up some special pills in South Africa. The box claimed that they were designed by the KGB to keep their agents from getting drunk and that though they failed in their intended mission, they do have the property of curbing those day after blues. After night one, the pills seemed to be working, so I carried on using them into night two. That evening turned into a particularly heavy session. After some sixteen hours of sleep, I woke up stinking of stank and in a state of mild disorientation. Not only had the KGB pills failed to stave off a hangover, they also robbed me of consciousness and somehow conspired to produce a horrific odor. I recommend steering clear of the horrible things.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Not Santorum

Santorini Island, Greece

We're officially in Europe, and the trip is nearing it's conclusion.
It's kind of a bittersweet feeling knowing that it will all be over soon. On the one hand, this little adventure has been amazing, easily surpassing my expectations, and the lure of continuing these explorations for another year is strong. On the other hand, I'm looking forward to getting myself reorganized. A lot of shit falls into disrepair when you're away from the real world, especially for spans of time measured in months, and the idea of getting all my ducks back in a row is very appealing.

But, for these last two months, The OC will keep on keepin'-on, and we are now entering a more vacation-y phase of the mission. We're currently in Greece, basking in the fancy sun of the Cyclades with our friend Lauren. After she heads back to LA, we'll tool around in the Balkans for a bit, perhaps stopping in Bulgaria to chill on the Black Sea Coast, and maybe even meeting with some old Lyubov Orlova friends in Hungary. By the end of May, we should be in Croatia for a week-long sail along the Adriatic. Once that's done, the World Cup begins, which will no doubt involve a lot of screaming and pints. And Amsterdam. Gotta have Amsterdam.
So, nothing too difficult. Europe is kind of a known quantity. It should be fun, but I don't see any big challenges on the horizon. Just a lot of money spent. Seriously. I think our three days here on Santorini will end up costing us more than our three weeks in India did.
Stupid strong Euro.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Video Gallery: Turkish Catfight

China and Thailand had some good catfights. Turkey put them to shame.

Video Gallery: Turkish BBQ

We were in the midst of being scammed when we sat down at this Turkish restaurant. It was cool, nonetheless.

Photo Albums: Tourist Turkey

Turkey is an interesting mix of the ancient, the old-but-not-really-ancient, and the new.

Grease Me Up, Woman

Athens, Greece

We arrived safely in Athens by train and have made contact with the one and only Lauren E. Today was a public holiday. In Europe, the first of May is set aside for protesting and drinking. We observed a bit of the former before indulging in quite a bit of the latter - and the day is still young. Tomorrow, we leave early for Santorini. With luck, the sun will come out and we shall enjoy the black sand beaches as they were intended.